Abstract

A key challenge for effective, ongoing urban climate adaptation is to adapt institutions within urban governance. While an extensive foundation of empirical knowledge on urban climate adaptation has accumulated over the last decade, our image of institutional adaptation continues to be dominated by a focus on planning. Whilst understandable, this can obscure a fuller range of areas in which institutional adaptation to climate change is being pursued. Furthermore, methodological path dependency in large-N analysis via a common focus on analyzing formal planning documents risks a skewed perspective as such documents may only offer a partial view. Building on the rich range of work to date assessing climate adaptation in cities, and notwithstanding continued major gaps such as in small-medium cities, we now need to find ways to examine the diversity of institutional adaptation occurring in practice, and to comparatively draw on the situated interpretive knowledge of case experts within individual cities to do so. With this aim in mind, this paper explores institutional adaptation in a specific domain (urban water) in a sample of 96 major cities across six continents through a survey of 319 case experts, examining the diversity of institutional adaptation across contexts and exploratively probing its drivers. Findings show that multiple forms of institutional adaptation are being jointly pursued in cities across all continents, leaning towards ‘softer’ rather than ‘harder’ forms, but nonetheless revealing a wide range of activity. Patterns in drivers suggest a political explanation for institutional adaptation (e.g. involving change agents and political pressure) rather than a rational one (e.g. involving response to climate-related risks and/or extreme events). Overall, there is a need to combine parsimony with expanded interpretive sensibility in advancing large-N research on institutional adaptation diversity in a comparative perspective.

Highlights

Tackles the challenge of institutional adaptation in urban climate governance.

Explores diversity and drivers of institutional adaptation in major cities.

Employs an ‘interpretive-comparative’ approach drawing on expert knowledge.

Reveals much activity but also a tendency towards softer rather than harder changes.

Findings suggest a political explanation for institutional adaptation.